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Music for Screens: Spring 2012

Darius Van Arman, co-owner of indie record label Jagjaguwar, always viewed the imprint’s recent adventures in the screen trade as a kind of experiment, which might explain his attitude about branching out as less make-or-break than whatever-happens-happens.

“I mean, I hope it works out financially for us,” says Van Arman. “But if it doesn’t, we are at peace with possible losses.”

The foray began with label act Rick Alverson, whose most recent directorial effort, “The Comedy” (the third of his films financed by Jagjaguwar), played at this year’s Sundance and SXSW fests. Variety called the effort, about a group of thirtysomething slackers starring Comedy Central stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, “not without a certain subversive intelligence.”

Alverson’s relationship with the label spans 16 years and nine albums, and the tie underscores a certain art-for-art’s-sake ethos at work. “There was a lot of trust and mutual respect built over those nine albums, none of which have been commercial successes,” says Van Arman.

Bloomington, Ind.-based Jagjaguwar’s roster of musicians includes recent Grammy-winning new artist Bon Iver as well as Okkervil River and Sufjan Stevens.

In 2010 Alverson decided to make a short film (“The Builder”) and asked Jagjaguwar to distribute it. “We’re really not in the business of movies but we are compelled by Rick as an artist, so we said ‘why can’t we have a label-like relationship with a director in the same way that we had with him as a musician?’?” says Van Arman.

The label committed to financing four movies with Alverson, “trying to help him build” as a director, much like in the golden days of the music business, when nurturing young artists went hand-in-hand with the bottom line.

But Van Arman learned that the indie film business is very different to the indie music biz. “Once a movie comes out, if it doesn’t do well in the first few weeks of a theatrical release, it is probably not going to do well. The music world is different, you can develop something from nothing in more incremental ways.”

Van Arman looks to emerging structures that would ostensibly allow movie consumers to pre-book tickets to a film, even before a theater has committed to screening it. “Is there a way to get indie movies to be funded by consumers? Because there’s dignity in that,” he says. “And that’s a much more compelling dignity than the dignity of talking someone into giving you a couple hundred thousand dollars at a cocktail party.”

Alverson’s first film, 2010’s “The Builder” — released on DVD and made available on iTunes — has yet to recoup its $5,000 production cost. His second feature, “New Jerusalem,” fared better, premiering at SXSW in 2011.

It’s hoped that his upcoming fourth film, “Rabbit,” in post, may push Jagjaguwar’s experiment with Alverson into profitability. Whether the musician-filmmaker’s willfully eccentric work will eventually find an audience is another matter altogether.

“‘The Comedy’s’ SXSW screening was packed; and at Sundance, having Tim and Eric’s star power really helped,” says Van Arman. “Plus Rick has really grown as a director. And that’s what feels good.”

Trailer for “The Builder”:

Trailer for “New Jerusalem”:

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